By Mike Klein
Go bold or go safe? Those are two very different directions. Soon we will see which direction a state digital learning task force chooses when its report is released next month. The task force created last year by Governor Nathan Deal was told in specific executive order language that technology and digital learning are the future. What does that mean?
Far-reaching, shoot-the-moon strategies that shove aside traditional obstacles could become transformational – that is, they would forever change the landscape. Less aggressive but politically safe thinking would become largely transitional – that is, tweaks around the edges.
Georgia has recent experience with both transformational and transitional.
Three years ago the state empaneled a special council to recommend comprehensive tax and revenue policy reform. Ideas from that high profile special council were so transformational, landscape changing and politically charged that the council’s excellent work was almost immediately laid to waste. The report became a victim of its own aggressive recommendations.
Three years later, Georgia has fallen behind other southern states. Soon, Georgia will have the highest maximum personal income tax rate among all southern states, something that Texas, North Carolina, Florida and others understand as they refine economic game plans. Georgia did eliminate the energy tax on manufacturing inputs – you could easily debate that this was only a transitional idea — but the state has as yet failed to address larger tax policy questions.
Contrast the transitional approach to tax reform with the transformational approach to criminal justice reform. With almost his first breath in office, Governor Deal implemented a multiple-year strategy to address adult and juvenile justice reform. Georgia is now regarded as being among the small number of states that have the best ideas and infrastructure to monitor reforms. Georgia is absolutely a transformational leader within the justice reform conversation.
Learning policy today is stuck between transition and transformation. We know the brick-and-mortar model where everyone learns everything inside a classroom is on the way out, but we are not quite so far down the road that everyone can learn everything through online learning. And, there are great inequities across the state – and the nation – due to resource availability. There are also many different kinds of learners. One-size-fits all will never be the best model.
When the Digital Learning Task Force met last week in Fayetteville, one member said her company would be out of business today if it was still trying to succeed with a 1985 business model. Georgia schools are funded by something known as the Quality Basic Education Act – which was enacted in 1985. Last week Governor Deal said he would like to overhaul QBE if he is re-elected in November 2014. At that, it could be years before anyone sees a new formula.
Another task force member said Georgia has plenty of virtual learning resources – and plenty of traditional learning resources, that is, classrooms – but co-mingling resources has not taken place. Disincentives, particularly how education is funded, you know, on that 1985 QBE model, provide plenty of obstacles to the successful blending of virtual and traditional learning. Not only was there no online learning in 1985, there was no online anything in 1985!
Traditionally, school systems and states needed to create what they taught. Now teaching and learning resources are available from across the globe, from thousands of phenomenal sources, often just one click away. Sometimes for free. School systems and states no longer need to spend money writing courses. Instead, they need to invest their tax dollars toward acquisition of outstanding content and make certain that infrastructure exists to reach learners everywhere.
This year the 14-member Digital Learning Task Force work groups focused on infrastructure requirements, blended and competency-based learning, and digital content and course resources. The report due next month could serve as a placeholder, or a playmaker.
Boldly, the task force could state K-12 public education in Georgia will become entirely digital within a certain timeframe – for example, by the year 2025 – unless there is no digital course available for learners, which is highly unlikely because digital content creation is moving faster than the ability or interest of school systems to implement new online learning options.
Boldly, the task force could start the funding formula discussion by recommending state and local tax dollars should follow students to digital learning environments. School systems absolutely should receive tax dollars for enrolled students, but student education should be funded where the students are – systems should not receive funds for students who are not there.
Some folks believe good things are happening in Georgia public education but nobody knows. That’s also a problem. Task forces are not created to change perceptions but this one should choose to Go Bold because going safe actually means going backward.
Georgia public education can no longer afford to be transitional. It must become transformational.
When I served four terms in the state Senate, one of the few places where you could go to always and get concrete information about real solutions was the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. That hasn’t changed. [The Foundation] is really right up there at the top of the state think tanks, so you should be very proud of the work that they are doing!